When you watch much of the news coverage on the reaction to the Oscar Grant/Johannes Mehserle verdict, you hear more about the looting, vandalism, and so-called “rioting,” creating this sense of a violent and destructive atmosphere.
Even though some of the news coverage has stated as an aside the rally started off peaceful, the focus was still on the negative. The truth is that the criminal mischief that occurred in downtown Oakland after the rally was a very small aspect of what happened yesterday.
Yesterday was an intense, bittersweet, but important day for the City of Oakland. With changes within the jury and the potential need to start over the deliberation, most people believed that the verdict would not come back until next week. But at 3:00pm PST, every major news network announced that the verdict was in, and word spread all the over the city. Office buildings began to clear out, traffic picked up, and people who worked downtown were told to go home early; the stress level of Downtown Oakland was rising.
The question on most people’s minds was, “What did this early verdict mean?” Although many people I talked to thought that the verdict would be involuntary manslaughter, for some, there was hope that Mehserle might get a harder charge, and many others feared he could be acquitted.
I happen to live four blocks from 14th and Broadway near City Hall, near the center of where the main protest was held, and near many of the businesses that were vandalized in the last Oscar Grant protest on January 14, 2009, where I could hear a great deal of the protest from my balcony.
After watching a little network news and seeing the crowd forming, I made my way downtown to the protest. Like clockwork, businesses, community centers, and government pulled out plywood pieces to cover the windows of their businesses. The faces of these businesses were people of all races and ages. Some of them put up Oscar Grant posters and signs, but most of them just stood by watching, feeling, and bonding with each other.
As I got closer to downtown, different activist groups began to approach me to hand off a protest sign, an Oscar Grant poster, or to share literature about “their cause. ”
At 5:00pm, when I got to the plaza where a few hundred people were gathered, the mood was mixed, but people were clearly angry. Over the course of an hour, the plaza began to swell up and the energy was rising; there were more frequent outbursts, chants, and other protest camps with their banners.
What I also felt was the electricity of the people; there was music in the courtyard of City Hall with dancing and laughter, beautiful art work that incorporated the face of Oscar Grant, and most importantly, a melting pot of everyday people. It was the most socially integrated experience I’d participated in since the election of President Obama. The anger was supported by love, respect, and empowerment. This demonstration of the first amendment was very necessary for Oakland and the Bay Area, particularly for communities that have lived with many socioeconomic and cultural indifferences, and specific challenges to social justice and civil rights.
At 6:00 o’ clock sharp, Tony Coleman, founder of One Fam, a long time community organizer and social entrepreneur and one of the main leaders in the Oscar Grant “Call to Action,” showed up and didn’t have to say much to draw a majority of the crowd to follow him to the center of the intersection. They quickly set up a small stage, a sound system, and a microphone.
Tony began to rally the crowd and quickly restated that the purpose of this “call to action” is to give the people of Oakland the opportunity to speak their minds, offer perspective, and to inspire protest participants to mobilize and work constructively to fight for reform of the justice system.
As the rally was kicking off, there was a stubborn crowd blocking an AC Transit bus, which distracted the rally and required police intervention to move the bus along. At first, it felt like police involvement would disturb the rally as they used a tactic to draw the large crowd away from the bus all the way to 12th Street. For about 30 minutes, that same crowd yelled and worked to agitate the police while the rally continued. Eventually, most of the protesters made their way back to the rally.
I believe there were several hundred people at the rally by 7:00pm. Tony continued to facilitate as several people made remarks. This included many young people from Youth Uprising, an Oakland based youth center that has been actively promoting the
“Violence Is Not Justice” campaign and has been actively planning constructive programs for youth angered by Oscar Grant’s murder. Over twenty young people ages 12 to 22 shared their thoughts.
There were also comments from adult leaders of other youth development and social justice programs offering ideas on how to change the system. A man who identified himself as “the Ghetto Prophet” shared some powerfully charged, insightful though profane comments about the danger of letting this opportunity for a movement end here. “What will you do tomorrow to demand justice in this society? Are you going to wake up, have a Danish, drink some coffee, and think this shit is going to get better, or are you going to congregate with the same people you see out here now? Start reading the newspapers, the computer . . .figure out where injustice is taking place, and be there.”
A community of elders gave historical perspective on Oakland and its legacy of protest. Oscar Grant’s grandfather, Oscar Grant I, gave a very heartfelt perspective urging young people to not tear up Oakland. “Please don’t tear up Oakland. We live here. In 1965, they tore up Watts in Los Angeles, and if you ain’t been there lately, go there now. They ain’t never built it back up.”
Generally, most of the people who attended the protest felt it was a very valuable and positive experience. Unfortunately, after the rally, there were 80-100 people still in the streets that were involved in the looting and vandalism of Foot Locker and at least a dozen other businesses. According to the police, 79% of those arrested weren’t from Oakland, and over half of them were anarchists with their own agenda.
Nevertheless, the vast majority of people, whether downtown at the rally, at other rallies throughout the Bay area, at churches, community centers, concert halls, wherever, knew and understood exactly what yesterday was about–release, expression, knowledge, empowerment, change, and reform.